From the Flyover to the stage
When we talk about people who live on the edge, we usually mean people who take risks and big gambles. It’s a throwaway phrase for people who don’t fancy a nine to five existence. From now on, when I hear that phrase, I’ll think of Dan McLaughlin.
Dan has lived on the edge.
For two years, his home was whatever shelter he could find under the flyover in the Bogside. As an alcoholic he’d lost everything. Family and friends were alienated, money went on drink, and Dan became pushed to the very edge of society. He’ll tell all those stories and more when he takes part in a unique play due to be staged in the Playhouse on March 26. Written by Aoidh Barbour, ‘Every Bottle has a story to tell’ tells the harrowing story of the character Eddie, a street drinker living under the flyover with other alcoholics.
Eddie’s story is brought to life by Dan, and the parallels are striking.
Bravely, Dan, 52 has decided to speak publicly about his battle with addiction and the years he spent sleeping rough, before he takes to the stage.
The Derry man is amazingly frank about the twists and turns his life has taken. He’s gradually rebuilding relationships and working at a fresh start. This week, he got news that he’ll take up a paid position as a busdriver with the Old Library Trust in Creggan later this month after time spent volunteering with the organisation.
He says he’ll be forever grateful to the organisation for giving him a chance.
Dan, who was born and bred in Creggan, says he has a lot of people to be grateful to. He says the Foyle Haven centre at John Street saved his life. The play he’s due to take part in next week was borne from the creative writing group there, facilitated by Felicity McCall.
Dan’s nervous about the part, for years, when drinking, he’d done a standup routine in local bars. This time, though, it’s different.
“I have nothing to hide, my life’s an open book, and doing this is important to me. I want to get the message out there that the street drinkers they walk past everyday are people. Someone’s son, or father, or mother is holding that bottle or standing under the flyover or at the old Railway museum. I was one of them and believe me, when they asked me what I wanted to be at careers day, I didn’t say I wanted to be a homeless alcoholic.”
Dan had been a drinker all his life until the death of his mother in 1987. With that, he stopped drinking and stayed sober for ten years before turning to drink again. “It was an easy spiral from there and I went down hill fast - very fast,” he says,
“You give everything up. You’ll give anything just to get a drink. People in your family try their best but eventually they can’t tolerate it anymore.”
Dan moved from place to place and in 2005, found he’d run out of options. Still drinking, Dan ended up on the streets.
“I was one of those faces, one of those people who stand there in every kind of weather. I was a street drinker,” he says.
That admission is more than just a fact. It’s the key to a world which for most of us remains entirely unexplored, on the edge of town and the fringes of life itself.
It’s a question which covers a multitude, but Dan answers it frankly.
“What’s it like being a street drinker? It’s frightening, exciting, entertaining, sad and miserable, all at the same time,” he says.
“You feel the cold, but it’s fleeting. If you have a drink in your hand, you’ve got what you need. A cold winter day will pass you by in the exact same way as a long summer day. You don’t care about anything else once you have your drink.”
While there are options for people who find themselves homeless, most of them are off limits if you’re a drinker.
“In most places you have to surrender your drink and for a drinker, that’s impossible. That’s how sick you become, you’d rather lie and hug your bottle in the rain, than have the comfort of a warm bed.”
Dan says he gradually became used to life on Derry’s streets and to the reaction people had when they looked on.
“I was mostly with the other drinkers under the flyover and there was a mixed reaction to us. Different people had different reactions, some stopped and talked and some treated you as if you weren’t even there. We had a code under the flyover. We didn’t bother people on their way to mass or children on their way to school. It was just an unspoken rule.
“Most people who drank there were from the Brandywell, Creggan and the Bog. It felt safer there than in some other places.”
Dan, who grew up in the area says many of his family still lived there while he was drinking, but he was unable to give up the bottle and go to them for help.
“I could’ve knocked on any of my family members’ doors but I couldn’t see past the drink, I just didn’t see a way where I’d be able to give it up.”
It was five years ago, when life changed forever for Dan and a series of events which could have had a tragic outcome, eventually led to the Creggan man finding that elusive way back.
“It was a Sunday morning and I was drinking with this fella up on the walls,” says Dan.
“He started to get aggressive and I walked away. Even with drink in me, I never really got aggressive and I wanted to avoid all that. It was 11:30am and I had a bottle of wine in me. I just remember having this thought that if I could get to the bridge, this could all end. That was my focus that morning, just to put an end to it. I headed for the Carlisle Road and on the way down I saw people coming out of church service. They were all very well dressed and decent looking people and I just thought, ‘who do you think you are?’
“I wanted that. I wanted that normal life but I couldn’t see it ever happening, and I walked on down the street, in the direction of the bridge. I’ll never forget it for the rest of my life but at that point, I saw my sister walking up the street and I just started crying.
“That was the turning point. I didn’t go to the bridge but I drank for a few days after that. Then I knocked on my eldest brother’s door in the Bogside. He took me in and detoxed me,” says Dan.
From there, on a hugely difficult journey and with the support of organisations like AA and the Foyle Haven, Dan has worked on turning his life around.
“My life was saved in the haven,” he says. “I have no doubt about it.”
He completed a twelve step programme and describes himself as having been brought back to life.
“That’s why I want to do this play and this story justice,” he says.
“People need to see the stories behind the bottles and the work that organisations like this do.
“The message for me is that street drinkers are human beings, at the end of the day.”
Dan’s own story is now one of a man who drives a bus for the Old Library Trust.
He’s going back to school, he sits on a steering committee alongside GP’s and others in the North West who make decisions around drug and alcohol referral schemes.
With all this, he’s training for a 5k which he’s intending to run in Omagh.”
He’s living life, and loving it.
‘Every bottle has a story to tell’ will run in the Playhouse on March 26.
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Weather for Derry
Wednesday 19 June 2013
Temperature: 10 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 15 mph
Wind direction: West
Temperature: 12 C to 19 C
Wind Speed: 15 mph
Wind direction: South